WEST LONDON SYNAGOGUE OF BRITISH JEWS
Written by Jessica
to celebrate the 150 year anniversary in 1990 of the break from the Orthodox Synagogue
Reproduced with kind permission of West London Synagogue
Formatted for JCR-UK by Louise Messik.
Reformatted 24 November 2011
In 1990, West London celebrates a remarkable anniversary; it is 150 years since
the decision to break away from the Orthodox synagogue and establish a new
branch of Judaism, based on what are now considered Reform lines. Anglo-Jewry in
1840 consisted of some twenty thousand people. In many respects, the situation
of the community was very favourable. Unlike in mainland Europe, Jews did not
need formal legal emancipation, and there were no more restrictions on Jewish
religious rights than on other non-conforming Christian groups.
Prior to 1840, Anglo-Jewish society was divided along the
Marks, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, maintained all the old
traditions. Criticism, though initially mild, had been voiced since the early
nineteenth century focusing on the lack of decorum during services and the poor
quality of religious instruction provided.
The first serious demand for change came in December 1836
when Moses Mocatta presented a petition to the Sephardi Mahamad (Council). No
changes were forthcoming. It was not until 1838 that the Elders of Bevis Marks
finally convened a meeting of members to placate the now growing numbers of
individuals calling for reforms. By then the priorities of the reformers had
altered; their chief claim was the establishment of a branch synagogue in the
West End, where many of the members now lived. This however conflicted with the Ascama 1, the governing rules of the congregation, which forbade the building of
any Sephardi synagogue within six miles of Bevis Marks.
In view of the grievances felt by certain congregants, a
meeting was held in the Bedford Hotel, Southampton Row in April 1840. Of the 24
people gathered there, no fewer than 18 came from just four leading families -
Mocatta, Montefiore, Henriques and Goldsmid. They resolved to establish a new
community, incorporating all the changes they had earlier proposed. These would
include a shorter revised service, a new prayer book, and a sermon in English.
These ideas confirmed the worst fears of the conservatives at Bevis Marks. In
particular they denounced the new prayer book which they viewed as heretical,
despite only very minor changes in the liturgy. As the reformers' plans became
more developed, so the criticism became more vociferous. Ultimately in
September 1841 the new congregation was denounced by the Chief Rabbi and its
members were subject to Herem or excommunication order.
The Herem order did nothing to weaken the resolve of the
reformers. Premises had been found in Burton Street, a Minister (Rev. David
Woolf Marks) had been selected and the new prayer book completed. On 27 January
1842, the West London Synagogue of British Jews was consecrated, the name
reflecting the unity now existing between Sephardi and Ashkenazi members and
expressing the patriotism felt for Britain by the congregants.
The problems faced by the new congregation did not cease with
the inauguration of the synagogue. The Herem order refused access to the burial
ground attached to Bevis Marks. Arrangements were made with Maiden Lane
Synagogue to use their burial grounds, and one member, Mrs. Horatio Montefiore,
was buried there. The confusion caused by her death illustrated to the founders
the need for their own burial grounds, and in 1843 the Balls Pond Road cemetery
was opened. Body snatching was still prevalent, and the rules for the Keeper of
the Burial Ground alluded to this problem, stating that the keeper shall himself
lock all gates and doors, and not be absent from his dwelling after sunset.
The issue of marriages was also a source of conflict between
the old and the new congregations. The 1836 Registration Act required all
marriages to be listed, and Registrars were employed to ensure that the system
worked effectively. Special provisions were made for Jews and dissenting
Christians, who were allowed to maintain their own practices, provided that
notice was given to the Registrar and the certificate obtained. The Secretary
of the Synagogue was responsible for the keeping of the marriage registrars,
which were issued to them by the Board of Deputies. Sir Moses Montefiore, the
President of the Board of Deputies and an outspoken critic of the West London
Synagogue continually refused to certify the synagogue, maintaining that he was
unwilling to call this place of worship a synagogue. As a result, for any years
members had to solemnize their weddings by two separate ceremonies on the same
day - a civil one before a Registrar, and a religious service in the synagogue.
But in 1848, the building in Burton Street was proving too
small for the congregation. New premises were acquired in Margaret Street,
Cavendish Square, at a cost of five thousand pounds. Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid,
who donated five hundred pounds towards the building fund, was given the honour
of laying the foundation stone, and the synagogue was consecrated on 25 June
The synagogue had an enlarged capacity of 400, seating 250
downstairs and 150 in the ladies gallery - women and men sat separately for
festival services until as late as 1977. The Jewish Chronicle report describes
the "harmony of the proportions and colour which prevails throughout." The
positive tone of the article did not continue when discussing Rev. Marks'
address; it notes critically that the lengthy narration of past disputes was not
befitting the solemn ceremony of consecration! The rift with the orthodox had
still not healed, as no ministers, let alone the Chief Rabbi attended. However,
in a mark possibly more of resignation than of respect, the Herem order was
finally lifted, thus removing the stain of illegitimacy on the new congregation.
Throughout the period 1849 to 1867, membership continued to
rise. With failure to purchase property at the back of Margaret Street, new
premises were again required. After a long search the area of Upper Berkeley
Street was chosen, and the present Synagogue was consecrated on 22 September
1870, its third and final location.
Rev. Marks, the Senior Rabbi, was now at the height of his
career. He hosted the Emperor of Brazil at the synagogue in 1871, and was
invited to lecture all over the world. He never lost touch with his community
though, and was able to resolve many controversial issues in a very sensitive
The social isolation affecting the synagogue and its members
became more diluted as the reformers became increasingly involved in the general
institutional life of the community. West London was soon represented on the
Anglo-Jewish Association, Board of Guardians and the Jewish Religious Education
Board. However it was not until 1886 that the synagogue was allowed to send
representatives to the Board of Deputies. Previously the Board had not even
invited the co-operation of the synagogue on neutral topics such as charity.
Furthermore, despite a new Chief Rabbi being in office, earlier tensions were
still evident. Not even the occasion of the Golden Jubilee service of the
synagogue in 1892 could persuade the Chief Rabbi to attend.
After the turmoil of the First World War, it was appreciated
that radical change in every aspect of synagogue life was necessary. A
committee was established to examine ways to increase attendances at services,
and to promote a more active and involved congregation. The war had made people
understand that the old order of society had disappeared, and that changes must
and would occur. Indeed this new approach had been seen during the war, with
the synagogue enlarging its philanthropic work, with the establishment of an
Infants Welfare Centre in the East End.
In the 1920s, initial efforts were made to invigorate the
congregation. A monthly magazine was introduced, though its publication was
sporadic in the early years. A social committee was formed in 1927; followed by
a debating and drama society, despite strong criticism from some of the members,
who felt that the only function of the synagogue was a religious one. The
publication of 'Judaism as Creed and Life' by Morris Joseph, then the
Senior Minister of West London, provided the reform movement with fresh
theological backbone. However, it was not until the arrival of Rabbi Harold
Reinhart in 1929 that the complete reorganisation and revitalisation required
In the decade leading up to the Second World War, the
synagogue blossomed from solely having a distinguished membership with a
healthy balance sheet to a vibrant thriving community. The religious services
were completely reorganised. This included not just the reinstatement of the
daily service, but also involved a thorough revision of the prayer book. The
children's religious classes were enlarged and structured, with a Hampstead
branch opening to ease pressure on the limited space in the building. Funds
were raised to build the Synagogue Annexe which provided much needed classrooms
and office space.
In 1933, the synagogue first became aware of the serious
problems facing Jewry in Germany. Throughout the 1930s. a warm welcome was
assured to the Rabbis and scholars who fled from Nazi Europe. Many were
graduates of the rabbinical colleges and their presence gave a new strength to
the Reform movement. They were assisted in finding employment, often connected
with the new Reform communities being established in Golders Green, Glasgow and
elsewhere. Rabbi Reinhart and his wife also quietly sustained many individuals
from Europe who had been irreparably damaged by their experiences.
The war years resulted in unprecedented difficulties for the
synagogue, yet every important aspect of its work was maintained. Services were
never missed, although they were often held to the accompaniment of air-raids.
The patriotism of the members was proudly displayed. Prayers for the successful
end of the war were included in every service. In addition, special
commemorative services were held, marking the annual National Day of Prayer and
the plight of European Jewry.
A period of reconstruction followed the end of the war. The
synagogue itself had escaped serious damage, although repairs were required to
the roof, windows and doors. The cemeteries had both suffered direct hits, with
tombstones broken and the lodge in the Balls Pond Road destroyed.
All this however was overshadowed by the realization of the
full extent of the horrors of Nazi Europe. Immediately after the war, the
synagogue undertook practical steps to alleviate the situation of those who had
already suffered to much.
The largest venture was the establishment of a hostel for
orphan children, who had survived the concentration camps. Lingfield House
became the home of the refugee children for three years. Alice Goldberger was
appointed Matron, and provided all the children with loving care. The first
children arrived in November 1945, and by the following June, West London was
supporting twenty-nine children. For the synagogue as a whole, the children at
Lingfield became 'their' children.
In 1956, under the auspices of the Association of Synagogues
of Great Britain, the Jewish Theological College (now the Leo Baeck College) was
opened at Upper Berkeley Street. With the destruction of the traditional
centres of learning in Europe, the need for an institute to train rabbis and
teachers was paramount. This was especially relevant in the post-war period,
when the number of Reform synagogues rapidly expanded from just four to over
thirty. Rabbi Dr. Werner Van der Zyl, who was to become the Senior Minister of
West London in 1959, was appointed Principal of the College, and together with
Leonard Montefiore, the distinguished Vice-President of the synagogue, devoted
himself to the development of the College. It began with five students
including Rabbi Lionel Blue and Rabbi Michael Leigh, who was Assistant Minister
here before moving to Edgware Reform. The Leo Baeck College moved to larger
facilities at the Sternberg Centre, Finchley in 1981.
In the twenty years following 1957. the synagogue was
fortunate in being able to call on the leadership of Presidents such as A. S.
Diamond (a Master of the Supreme Court), Edward 'Jock' Mocatta (an eminent
banker) and His Honour Alan King-Hamilton, Q.C. (a distinguished Old Bailey
The last twenty years, under the outstanding leadership of
Rabbi Hugo Gryn, have seen the synagogue continue to grow and develop. Indeed,
West London is now the largest synagogue in England with over 2,400 members.
In recent years, West London has become a steadily more
active supporter of Israel. Over the last decade, the synagogue has undertaken
new projects, linked to the establishment of reform kibbutzim in Israel and a
project renewal programme in Ashkelon, in addition to numerous smaller projects.
The Soviet Jewry campaign is another important area of community involvement,
which has received the active support of many members. In 1987, the synagogue
sponsored three Jewish families; two of them are now living in Israel. In 1989,
the synagogue sponsored the first ever youth trip to visit refuseniks in Moscow
and Leningrad and this has now become an annual event in the youth programme.
The synagogue is also in the forefront of inter-communal and
inter-religious activities. The participation of the Archbishop of Canterbury
at the Remembrance Service in 1988 is just one example. Inter-denominational
workshops and conferences have often been hosted at West London and indicate the
commitment of the synagogue to participate and contribute fully to British
As West London looks back on 150 years, there is much to
celebrate. The future holds much promise - the large congregation, the active
groups, the caring clubs all augur well, and with further positive development
of a community centre within our existing structure, there will be an
opportunity to create a complete synagogue centre. But perhaps it is to the
past that we should once more reflect. In 1849, the vision of the 'seceders'
was to create a religious but reform community, based on the ideals of equality
between men and women, and the encouragement of education, charity and communal
The founders would be very proud of their creation
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